United Kingdom

Bitter inheritance battle over £150,000 family jewels

A businesswoman is locked in a bitter inheritance fight over the family jewels after her wealthy aunt left her £6m fortune to an ex-British Airways air steward she met on a cruise.

Julia Titcombe, 46, says her rich and 'unconventional' aunt Patricia Thompson promised her treasured £150,000 jewellery collection to her in a Skype call before she died.

But when globetrotting multimillionaire Ms Thompson died in Monte Carlo in February 2015, she left her entire £6m estate to former senior purser, Neil Ison, 54, whom she had befriended on a cruise ship holiday years earlier.

That included her precious 31-piece jewellery collection, acquired during her years of travelling to exotic places.

The jewellery is now at the centre of a bitter High Court fight between Mr Ison and Mrs Titcombe, of Camberley, Surrey, who insists that her aunt pledged the gems to her on a video call as she wanted them to stay in the family.

The businesswoman, who runs a drinks manufacturing company, has gone to court seeking a judge's ruling to force Mr Ison to hand the jewellery stash over.

But Mr Ison is fighting her claim, insisting the jewellery is his to control, along with the rest of his late friend's £6m fortune.

Julia Titcombe, left, says her rich and 'unconventional' aunt Patricia Thompson promised her treasured £150,000 jewellery collection to her in a Skype call before she died. But when globetrotting multimillionaire Ms Thompson died in Monte Carlo in February 2015, she left her entire £6m estate to former senior purser, Neil Ison, 54, right, whom she had befriended on a cruise ship holiday years earlier.

London's High Court heard Mr Ison and Ms Thompson met while on a cruise in 2004 and globe-trotted together extensively from 2007 onward, with Mr Ison tasked to carry and look after her precious jewellery case while they were travelling.

Ms Thompson had an 'unconventional' life, the court heard, having previously enjoyed a 'long romantic relationship' with millionaire businessman, Raymond Richards, despite the fact that he was married.

Mr Richards and his wife Audrey would often holiday together with Ms Thompson, and many of her gems were gifts lavished on her by Mr Richards.

Many of the gems were bought during their travels and had their own special history - being 'a reminder of a particular place she had been to,' said Mr Ison.

When Mr Richards died in 2005, he left his entire fortune to Ms Thompson, and before his death he made Mr Ison promise that he would 'look after Patricia' when he was gone.

Mr Ison and Ms Thompson became 'very close friends' in the last decade of her life, and during her final year he ditched his job and moved into her flat in Monaco to help her battle the terminal cancer which killed her.

Her previous will had left her fortune to her niece Mrs Titcombe, but in February 2014 the dying Ms Thompson made a new will naming Mr Ison as her sole heir.

Mrs Titcombe says that in a Skype call made when she was preparing to write her will, her aunt told her she wanted her to have the jewellery - 'but that she would be leaving it to Mr Ison to give it to Mrs Titcombe on birthdays and at Christmas'.

In court documents, her lawyers add: 'She and the deceased had a video call over the internet. The deceased told Mrs Titcombe that she was re-writing her will and that she wanted Mrs Titcombe to have her jewellery.

'She said that she wanted Mr Ison to pass jewellery to Mrs Titcombe on her birthdays and at Christmas, so Mr Ison and Mrs Titcombe maintained a good relationship after the deceased's death.'

Mrs Titcombe, who runs a drinks manufacturing company, has gone to court seeking a judge's ruling to force Mr Ison to hand the jewellery stash over

Mr Ison is fighting her claim, insisting the jewellery is his to control, along with the rest of his late friend's £6m fortune

Mr Ison was present on the call and did not object to what was said, say Mrs Titcombe's lawyers.

Mrs Titcombe says Mr Ison is currently holding the jewellery stash 'on trust' for her and should now hand it over.

But Mr Ison says his rich friend passed the jewellery to him on the clear understanding that he alone will decide what happens to it.

In court documents, his lawyers told the judge Mr Ison had become a 'close friend' of Ms Thompson after they met.

'When the deceased was diagnosed with cancer in January 2014, Mr Ison took leave from and subsequently resigned from his job and cared for the deceased until her death,' they state.

'While he was caring for the deceased in 2014 and 2015, she told him she wanted to leave her entire estate to him, including her jewellery, and that it would be for him to decide what to do with it.

'She expressed the wish that he give pieces of her jewellery to her friends and family after her death as he thought it appropriate or, if he needed to, sell it for his own benefit.

'The deceased did not intend her jewellery to pass to Mrs Titcombe as alleged.

'It is admitted the deceased spoke to Mrs Titcombe from time to time on video calls over the internet and that Mr Ison was present for some of those calls.'

But 'the alleged conversation did not take place,' Mr Ison's lawyers state.

Mrs Titcombe says that in a Skype call made when she was preparing to write her will, her aunt told her she wanted her to have the jewellery - 'but that she would be leaving it to Mr Ison to give it to Mrs Titcombe on birthdays and at Christmas'

'The deceased never told Mr Ison that she had a strategy of entrusting him to give Mrs Titcombe an item of jewellery every birthday and Christmas after her death,' they say.

'It was at my discretion,' Mr Ison told the judge, pointing out that he has already handed over several pieces to Mrs Titcombe - a solid gold Rolex watch, a diamond pendant, a pair of diamond earrings, a diamond tennis bracelet for her 40th birthday in 2016 and a string of pearls to her mother.

In the witness box, Mrs Titcombe told the judge: 'I thought that he was going to look after [the jewellery] and keep her memory alive by every birthday and Christmas giving me a piece of the jewellery, and that would be a nice, warm way of keeping her memory alive.

'It's irrelevant how much the jewellery is worth, it's of sentimental value to me. I wear a ring that's costume jewellery.'

Mrs Titcombe came close to tears as she explained that she wanted the gems 'to keep my aunt's memory alive', and added: 'I trusted that man (Mr Ison) with my life, I trusted him with everything.'

She also hoped that the jewellery would one day be worn by her own daughter, adding: 'The jewellery was important, but our relationship was just as important. I am not a materialistic person.'

Mrs Titcombe's dad, Stewart Thompson, told the court his sister Ms Thompson wanted her jewellery to be 'worn and enjoyed'.

'My sister wouldn't want her jewellery collection to be sitting in a safe in Monaco for perpetuity,' he told the judge.

Mr Ison's barrister, Owen Curry, flatly rejected claims that any 'trust' relating to the family jewels had been created for Mrs Titcombe.

'There is no clear evidence that Ms Thompson intended to impose a legally binding obligation on Mr Ison in respect of her jewellery, and the evidence from which she says such an obligation should be inferred is very thin indeed.

'They discussed what would happen to her jewellery after she had died. But it was always for him to decide what would happen and he has respected her wishes.

'She did not require him to deal with it in a certain way and she was clear that he could sell it if that was appropriate.'

The judge, Deputy Master Rhys, reserved judgment on the case to a later date.

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